What Do We Mean by Purity Culture?

What Do We Mean by Purity Culture? August 7, 2019

Lori Alexander recently published a collection of quotes having to do with Josh Harris and other related things in the news. The following paragraph was among them, attributed to someone named Joseph Spurgeon (Lori doesn’t say, but it is possible that he’s this guy):

I had not heard the term ‘purity culture’ until the last couple of weeks but I’m already sick of hearing about it. It is just a boogeyman term and a proxy term useful for attacking Christian ideas of sexual purity.

Before moving on to the remainder of Spurgeon’s comments, let’s examine the term “purity culture.”

Donna Frietas, then a visiting professor at Boston University, used the term in a book on sex on campus published in 2008. “Evangelical colleges everywhere have a purity culture, not a hookup culture, regardless of whether the college considers itself liberal or conservative in terms of the Christianity they practice,” she wrote in a Q&A. Jessica Valenti also used the term in her book The Purity Myth, published the same year. The place the term took off, though, was the blogosphere.

I began using the term in 2011 in an attempt to describe a range of teachings centered around purity, from modesty teachings to teachings about dating and sex. I published a page titled The “Purity Culture” the following year in order to showcase the numerous posts I was writing on the topic.

Up until a few years ago, I saw the term primarily in the blogosphere, used by individuals like Dianna E. AndersonRachel Held Evans, and Samantha Field. This is important because it means that the term was shaped, forged, and popularized by young women who raised in evangelical homes, and not by outsiders—we were writing about something we knew, and had experienced.

Whatever Spurgeon claims, the term is neither “a boogeyman term” nor “a proxy term useful for attacking Christian ideas of sexual purity.” It’s a term we latched onto because it fit. It described our experiences. It made sense of common experiences we had all had.

With that out of the way, we can turn to Spurgeon’s central point, which is as follows:

The biggest complaints seem to be around the idea that there is shame associated with fornication, lust, and other sexual sins. But that shame is good. People attacking it are really just interested in moving the shame from these sins to those who are against them. It wasn’t purity culture that caused people harm, it was their sin.

Well then.

Yes, the centrality of shame to purity culture is a big part of what critics find objectionable. Teenage girls are told that if they have sex, they’re like bubble gum that has already been chewed. I’m not terribly surprised that Spurgeon would argue that that shame is a good thing. The reason purity culture exists and causes so much harm is that it has many, many adherents—like Spurgeon.

This point is not very interesting. Of more interest is Surgeon’s claim that “it wasn’t purity culture that caused people harm, it was their sin.” In other words, he claims that those decrying the harm caused by purity culture actually sinned, and were harmed by their sin, and not by purity culture at all.

There are many, many problems with Spurgeon’s claim. To begin with, many purity culture critics experienced harm before engaging in anything Suprgeon would classify as “sin.”

Some married early, to the first person they were romantically involved with, as is encouraged in evangelical purity culture, only to find themselves in an abusive relationship, or otherwise see their relationship blow up in their face. These were not harmed by sin. They were harmed by a system of beliefs that valued “purity” more than exploring compatibility, or individual personal development.

Others married and followed all of the rules, only to find an abiding deep shame over sex, even within marriage, that they couldn’t kick. Sometimes this shame was attached to their bodies, which they could not see as other than sinful temptations, regardless of how conservatively they dressed.

Some stayed with men who raped and abused them, because they saw themselves as worthless without their virginity, which they could not get back. What other man would want them?

Yes, some rejected purity culture wholesale and have since had sex with multiple partners, even—the horror!—living with partners before marriage. But these critics do not speak of harm rising from any of these decisions. Instead, they have found no harm resulting at all, and criticize purity culture for causing them unnecessary years of shame and fear before they finally threw it off.

Having sex before marriage does not itself cause shame. Being taught for years and years that having sex before marriage is a terrible sin causes shame. Spurgeon says this shame is a good thing. Fine! But he cannot pretend that it is the act of having sex that causes this shame, and not the teachings.

And again—lest this point be missed—criticism of purity culture does not center at all on feeling shame after having premarital sex. For nearly a decade, criticism of purity culture has centered on other things entirely, such as the role of purity culture in keeping women in abusive relationships, or the shame many of us felt about their bodies no matter how modestly we dressed, or the ways in which purity culture messed up our sexuality even within marriage.

We are angry because our worth as a person was reduced to whether or not we had had sex; because our value on the marriage market was tied to our sexual inexperience and not our interests, desires or abilities; and because we were made to be afraid and ashamed of our own bodies.

I was told that “boys are only interested in one thing” before I knew what that one thing was. I spent years afraid of boys. After reading Josh Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye, I became convinced that having crushes on boys was sinful. I spent years tormenting myself. It turns out you can’t be 14 and not have crushes, but dammit, I tried. And failed. And felt like shit. And tried again.

We’re not angry because we’re sluts facing consequences for our sluttery and looking for someone to blame. Far from it. We were the good girls. We tried, and tried, and tried, and it hurt us. For many of us, liberation only came after we stopped trying.

Spurgeon would know this if he had read any criticism of purity culture at all, instead of hearing the term and deciding that it consisted of people upset that they felt guilty after having premarital sex. And it’s too bad, because if Spurgeon is indeed this guy, he both has daughters and is a pastor.

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